Dallas Cowboys Free Agents: Who's Returning?
One disclaimer before we begin:
This article is actually me doing research for a larger work. However, this is worth a piece on its own because of the sheer amount of information involved, and includes analysis instead of being a total re-post of information.
It's almost that magical time of year, the offseason. This is the real time that championships are won (the Patriots rebuilding their secondary) or lost (the Seahawks failing to find an immediate impact player at receiver).
For the Cowboys, it's more about re-signing that making any splash. Because of who's hitting free agency, there's not enough cap space to do much else.
Including the slotted salaries of the draft picks they currently have, the Cowboys project to have about $8.6 million in cap space.
That's not enough based on the players the Cowboys would like to keep. There are ways to free up more cap space, but that's a whole other subject, worth writing on its own.
The obvious free agents to keep:
Dez Bryant will command a large contract (probably $12 million to $15 million a year for however long the Cowboys choose to keep him), and is a true star, well worth the money. If it's structured right, his cap figure can be under that $8.6 million in cap space.
However, DeMarco Murray may still have some decent years left in him, and is worth re-signing at the right price (probably $3 million to $5 million a year, although he'll probably get around $8 million to $10 million a year on the open market).
Ideally, Bryant will be re-signed before the franchise tag window closes in March, leaving the Cowboys free to tag Murray and add leverage to extend him on a team-friendly deal.
The second tier:
Both of the right tackles for the Cowboys hit the open market this year.
Doug Free was overpaid and had to take a pay cut to stay with the team in 2013, but has at least been respectable while platooning with Jeremy Parnell, a converted defensive lineman that has raw ability.
Whether one or both of these players return will depend on the demand for their services, the amount of cap space left after big signings, and the draft plan for the Cowboys.
There's also a trio of linebackers the Cowboys would like to keep because of Sean Lee's injury history, but may not get to.
Bruce Carter has shown flashes of potential, but only put together a full season once, leaving the demand for his services low.
Rolando McClain revived his career and held the defense together. He would prefer to stay in Dallas, but may end up getting a large offer from another team.
Justin Durant has been solid for the team, but is also a luxury at a position that can be replaced. An offer above $2 million from another team would likely lead to Durant's departure from the team.
Restricted free agents likely to return:
An RFA's team retains matching rights for any contract offered to that player if the team has tendered an offer according to the CBA. However, only players entering their fourth year without a contract are restricted free agents, and usually were signed as undrafted free agents.
Ron Leary is a solid guard that's had Jerry Jones' attention for a long time. He should be back for relatively cheap, around the same price as Mackenzy Bernadeau. Future contracts could be a little bigger if Leary continues to develop, but for this year, his contract is easily manageable.
Cole Beasley has been taking off in one week fantasy football circles. He's 5'10", 180 pounds, and hardly ever catches the ball as the fourth receiver for the Cowboys. When he does, it's an important first down or a touchdown. He should also be available at around the price of the RFA tender, well worth the price.
Lance Dunbar has been touted by the Cowboys as a Darren Sproles-esque player, but hasn't had many chances to perform on the field, especially with the huge year by Murray. He'll be back for sure if Murray isn't, but if Murray is re-signed, Dunbar's value to the team (and potential pay) plummets.
Role players it would be nice to bring back:
Dwayne Harris has respectable size as a wide receiver, and return instincts similar to Josh Cribbs'. He shouldn't cost more than $2 milllion a year, and will likely come in around $1 million a year. However, if second year receiver Devin Street develops and another player steps up as a returner, Harris will be expendable.
The defensive line is about to go through a rebuild. Anthony Spencer, George Selvie, and Nick Hayden could all end up replaced, but will likely initially be re-signed by the Cowboys in case the linemen management wants don't fall to the team. None of these three are likely to draw a large offer, so a return is possible.
Sterling Moore had a decent season as a back end of the roster corner, and would be worth keeping for veteran depth.
Tyler Clutts is a fullback, an essential ingredient in a power run game, and they're a low demand position that's disappearing. He'll be back for cheap or replaced.
What it all means:
Dez Bryant is a lock to be back. The Cowboys would like to bring back Murray, but might not be able to match offers from other teams. However, at least a few key players, like Parnell and McClain, should be able to return if the Cowboys take a credit card approach to the cap and push off hits into future years, a logical move with Romo's career entering its twilight.
This team should be able to remain strong during free agency, allowing the draft to be all about the best defensive player available.
But there's no way to be sure until it all goes down.